Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments
Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, there is an article by Stan Gundry. In it, he makes some interesting statements
Arguments in which both sides launch aggressive offenses and structure fortress-like defenses can be unnecessarily adversarial. I am not suggesting that such arguments have no place, but letâ€™s acknowledge that their value is vastly over-ratedStories cover the same territory, but they are testimonialsï‚¾and it is hard to argue with someoneâ€™s testimony.
I take issue with his presuppositions regarding testimonials, especially when the “goal” of the testimonial is to change our understanding and processing of Scripture. Let me give an example. If you have a minute, go and read Genesis 16 and 17, if you don’t have time, here’s a recap of the story.
God has promised Abram that he will be a great nation. His wife, Sarai, is, up to this point, barren. Sarai says to Abram,
Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
This is fairly interesting for a number of reasons, but the one that is most interesting to me is that Sarai is clear as to why she believes she has not given birth: The Lord hath restrained me from bearing. So, Abram goes into Hagar, and she conceives and Ishmael is born. Now, fast-forward thirteen years to the beginning of chapter 17. God comes to Abram again and makes the promise of a great nation, he changes his name to Abraham and he institutes circumcision. Then God says,
And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? (Genesis 17:15-17)
And then Abraham says:
And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
Thirteen years after he goes into Hagar, Abraham is still trying to sell Ishmael to God as the Son of Promise. God says, no way, but, I will bless him.
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
Now, we skip ahead to Genesis 25 and read this:
And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah: These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations. And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.
We know a little more about Isaac. We know that he married Rebekah and that he had two sons, Jacob and Esau. We know that he became wealthy. We know his story in greater detail without having to look it up. But, here is my question; Ishmael had twelve sons, each a prince with castles and lands. If someone looked at the fruit of Abraham’s actions, his child with Hagar and his child with Sarah, which one would they conclude was more “successful”. Would they conclude that going into Hagar was such a bad thing after all? Could they even conclude that it was a good thing? Based on Ishmael’s life, would the modern church have told Abraham, go down into Egypt and purchase from the slave blocks one hundred Hagars and get them all with child and raise up an army of Ishmaels? I wonder.
This is just one of the problems with interpreting Scripture through the lens of personal experience. Last week, I read a piece by Bart Campolo with the following statement (this excerpt is from a letter someone had written Bart) :
When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and – after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason â€” rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girlâ€™s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a â€˜cruel bastard.â€™ [Emphasis mine. the full article has been removed from the Youth Specialties site, but can be accessed via the Google cache here ]
When I read the article the first time, I remember thinking, rejected God forever?!? How does he know? And even if she never received Christ as her Savior, I reject the idea that it makes God a “cruel bastard” and I do think it shows the difficulty of our defining God based on our limited frame of reference.
I guess the closing thought is this: Hindsight isn’t 20/20. We like to think it is, but it’s just another perspective and full of it’s own pitfalls. In the end, it is Scripture and Scripture alone that instructs, corrects, reproves, and indoctrinates, and when we try to elevate our minds above it, we become the worst sort of fool. I should also say, that I’m not against testimony/personal experience and that I’m not saying it is worthless, quite the contrary. What I am saying is that we are never to use our perception as a lever to move Scripture. Instead, we should let Scripture bring clarity to our experience.